Do you ever know after the first few minutes that a movie you're watching is going to be one of your all time favorites? That's how I felt as I watched a mysterious but respectable looking man relaxed in a musty parlor of a traditional home, mesmerized by the images on a television, his origins and position in society initially an enigma. Peter Sellars is exceptional in his studied turn as this odd figure, soon revealed as Chance the gardener, a.k.a. Chauncey Gardner, in Hal Ashby's Being There. You will not believe that this man so inhabited the role of the fatuous Inspector Jacques Clouseau sixteen years earlier in the bubbly sixties comedy The Pink Panther.
I implore you not to read on if you are planning on seeing this film, because as with any good movie, the less you know going into it the better. Being There takes place in late 1970s Washington, D.C., which is comprised of two very distinct worlds: the gritty world (seen briefly) of the natural inhabitants of the city and the insular world of its well-off power brokers. Chance, who the audience is early on made to understand as a slow-witted gardener, bridges both of these worlds unwittingly and unintentionally, but the two social sets have very different interpretations of Chance. The more educated set is no more--and in fact less--perceptive as to this unlikely character's true nature. This becomes clear when Chance happens upon a prominent, ailing business man (Melvyn Douglas) and his socialite wife (Shirly MacLaine), who see metaphor in the fortuitous gardener's literal observations about the seasons, and thus feel they have unearthed a wise visionary and a sensual thinker, respectively. In Chance's pleasant interactions with these and other illuminati, including the President of the United States, we are presented a class of navel-gazers, people who see only what they want to. As a result, Chance becomes an natural conduit for their self-validation.
Yet, Chance is hardly written off. Being There is actually a tale of a fool more virtuous than any supposed wise man. Peter Sellars appears truly at peace in this role, so that Chance's simplicity radiates as a redemptive force in a complex, fallen world. As a reviewer on IMDB put it, Chance's inner tranquility is sought out by those who one would expect to be most aloof from such sincerity and such calm. Thus, Being There suggests that everyone, particuarly those with the most the world has to offer, longs for a simpler time, which is why Chance's uncomplicatedness is so alluring to the high ups. When he literally walks on water, Chance's iconically beatific existence has been cemented, as has Being There's place as a fascinating film.